At the end of January, the American space shuttle Challenger blasted its way, not into space, but into oblivion, with a spectacular televised explosion. The seven crew members were all killed, including a schoolteacher who had been intended to be the first civilian in space — part of the propaganda battle to give the massively expensive space programme some public respectability. But such projects are not primarily about propaganda and certainly not about the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. Half of the shuttle’s flights are for specifically military purposes, and it plays an important role in preparations for the latest of Reagan’s fantasies, the Star Wars programme.
Star Wars is officially known by the euphemistic title of Strategic Defence initiative. The declared intention is to place a “dome” or “umbrella” around the United States, making it immune to attack from ballistic missiles launched from Russia. Existing anti-ballistic missile systems work on the principle of destroying or disabling the incoming warheads as they re-enter the earth’s atmosphere over their target. Star Wars envisages this as simply the third line of defence in a far more sophisticated network. The first element of this would be to attack the missile boosters just after they are launched and before they release individual warheads, which would in turn be the subject of the second set of interceptors. If each layer of defence destroys 90 per cent of its targets, only 0.1 per cent of the warheads launched will reach their destination.
It is the first part of this network — against the booster phase — that represents the biggest innovation and is most dependent on new technology. Various kinds of beam weapons have been proposed to accomplish this aspect, including such exotica as X-ray lasers. All would be incredibly risky and expensive — one proposal, for instance, would require for its functioning the use of at least one-fifth of the entire American electricity output. Add to this the fact that whatever system is chosen would be of enormous complexity, could never be operationally tested and would have to work perfectly at the first time of asking. It is no wonder that many leading American scientists have flatly stated that the whole Star Wars project is technically just not feasible.
The arguments about Star Wars display the logic of the madhouse, but this after all is the logic of capitalism. The American government’s justification for Star Wars is that it is. in Reagan’s words, “about peace, not war”. With the US supposedly immune from nuclear attack, there would be no further place for the deterrence doctrine of “mutual assured destruction” (MAD), which nuclear ideologues claim has so far kept the nuclear peace. Instead there would, it is claimed, be a real incentive on all sides for drastic reduction of nuclear weapons and their eventual complete abandonment.
Sceptical critics have pointed out a number of flaws in this cosy picture. One is that if the Russian rulers saw as imminent the installation of an impregnable nuclear shield over the United States, they might be minded to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike first; Star Wars would then have triggered, not prevented, nuclear war. Another shortcoming in the Reaganesque logic is due to a change of emphasis which has taken place in the Star Wars plans. In place of the original vision of watertight security, realisation of the problems with this has caused its replacement by the idea of almost total security — a leaky umbrella, as it were. But this radically changes the options available, for the revised version is only useful for defending military targets (though this has naturally not been stressed in US government propaganda). The reason for this is that if only a single warhead out of one hundred launched at a city gets through to its target, that city is destroyed. But even the leakiest umbrella may be able to delay the destruction of missile silos long enough for a retaliatory nuclear strike to be launched. In addition, a leaky umbrella might suffice to beat off an attack from any Russian response to an American first strike — which would make such a first strike a more “attractive” proposition to American hawks. It should be noted, too, that Star Wars offers no defence against low-flying cruise missiles or submarine-launched missiles.
It should not be thought, however, that Star Wars represents the first step in the militarisation of space, for this is something that was achieved long ago. Over three thousand satellites have been placed in orbit since Sputnik I in 1957. and three-quarters of these have had military purposes. Of the huge sums of money spent every year on space research by Russia and America, about half is on military work — not taking account of the fact that much work done for civilian reasons may have military applications. The simple idea of dropping bombs from satellites is out of the question (the bomb would simply continue in orbit) but ballistic missiles, spy satellites and anti-satellite weapons are all very real.
Even under capitalism, though, not all uses of space are military. Satellites already provide masses of other kinds of information about the earth: the position of mineral deposits; the routes of oil slicks and icebergs; developments in the weather; the effects of soil erosion; the likely location of earthquakes; and so on. Some of the information which can be gathered in this way is incredibly detailed. For instance, healthy and diseased wheat reflect infra-red radiation to very different degrees, thus making it entirely feasible for satellites to provide data leading to discovery of the amount of diseased wheat growing in a particular area.
Satellites are also useful for communications purposes, such as international telephone calls. In addition, they can monitor for distress signals. One such system is said to have saved over two hundred lives (in maritime emergencies and forced aircraft landings) in a two-year period. Such undertakings demonstrate that the global co-operation envisaged in a socialist society is not at all outlandish. All the information obtained from space could then be used for the benefit of humanity, not to defend the wealth and power of a few.
There are, of course, international treaties concerning space. In 1967. the United Nations negotiated the signing of the Outer Space Treaty which, for example, bans military bases on the moon. But it does not outlaw all military uses of space, nor does it define the crucial and vague term, “space”. A particular bone of contention is what is known as the geostationary ring. This is the area of space 36.000 kilometres above the equator: satellites located here remain fixed in relation to an observer on the earth, so that they never set or rise, thus offering obvious advantages from a communications point of view. At present “slots” in this geostationary ring are allocated by a branch of the International Telecommunications Union. But in 1976 a group of representatives of countries on the equator met and issued a declaration to the effect that any country on the equator automatically owned that portion of the geostationary ring that was directly above it. Thus are capitalist property rights extended into the vacuum of space.
Which brings us back to Star Wars. The first reactions of Western European rulers were consternation and disarray. The French government opposed the whole idea, the British government was divided (Thatcher for, Howe against). Then came the news that $26 billion was earmarked for Star Wars research over the next five years, and that some of this might be coming Europe’s way. Already. Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh has received a grant of $150,000 to work on optical computers. The French government is now encouraging French companies to compete for a share in these research funds. But there is no doubt that the bulk of the money will go to the large American arms manufacturers such as Rockwell, Boeing and Lockheed.
What a waste it all is. All the resources and know-how which, throughout the world, are devoted to “perfecting” the means of killing could so easily be devoted to ending hunger and poverty. But to do that means campaigning not for a change of government or for nuclear disarmament, but for the only line of defence against war — the establishment of socialism.